As a young aphorism, ABBA were one of the first pop bands I was aware of. My first impressions weren’t positive – the Swedish quartet’s reputation was at a low ebb in the 1980s, their 1970s disco-dabbling hits seen as dated and schlocky. It wasn’t until I saw an ABBA tribute band years later that I gained an appreciation for the band’s sophisticated pop mastery. It clouds ABBA’s reputation that they improved significantly over their tenure – early hits like ‘Ring Ring’ and ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ are fluffy and inconsequential compared to later masterpieces.
ABBA were effectively a supergroup – Benny Andersson was a member of the Hep Stars, known as the Swedish Beatles, while Björn Ulvaeus was in The Hootenanny Singers. Andersson and Ulvaeus started writing together, scoring hits for other artists. Frida Lyngstad won a national talent show in 1968, while Agnetha Fältskog was already a successful solo artist, topping the Swedish charts with a self-penned single ‘Jag var så kär’ in 1968. The quartet, now comprised of two couples, released their first album as Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid in 1973. They later took the acronym/palindrome ABBA, also the name of a Swedish fish-canning company.
The group were quickly successful – they won Eurovision in 1974 with ‘Waterloo’, while the 1975 compilation The Best of ABBA was astonishingly huge here in New Zealand, topping the charts for 18 weeks and going 24*platinum. But ABBA didn’t fulfill their potential until tracks like ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ from 1976’s Arrival, and the back half of their discography is much stronger than their early work. ABBA quietly split in 1982 – both couples had divorced, and the group felt that their new material wasn’t up to the standard of their previous work.
ABBA Album Reviews
ABBA are still a work-in-progress on their first record. They didn’t have their band name yet, and the album was originally credited to Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha, and Frida. It lacks the sleek Euro sound of later ABBA records, presenting songs that are derived from the mid-1960s. The Beatles, Goffin and King, and Phil Spector are all influences on early ABBA. Ring Ring is often unbearably inelegant, especially as Bjorn and Benny sing more often than necessary. But the musicality is there – these tunes are hummable, and Agnetha and Frida are strong vocalists.
The singles are generally tuneful but gauche – ‘Nina, Pretty Ballerina’, ‘People Need Love’, and the title track pale in comparison to the more sophisticated later efforts. It’s interesting to hear the band try out different things – there’s a strong dollop of country on ‘He Is Your Brother’. There are solid deep cuts – Agnetha has her only writing credit on an ABBA record for ‘Disillusion’, and ‘Another Town, Another Train’ is pretty. But the bad stuff is bottom tier ABBA – ‘I Am Just A Girl’ is like a fourth-rate show tune and the men struggle to deliver ‘I Saw It In The Mirror’ convicingly.
More than most bands, ABBA took a few albums to find their feet so their debut isn’t the best place to start.
Waterloo contains the quartet’s breakthrough hit, the title track that famously won 1974’s Eurovision competition. It’s clearly a step forward for the band, a sophisticated pop song with Agnetha and Frida on lead vocals. It was immensely successful as a single, cracking the US top ten and launching ABBA to international stardom. Despite the success on the single, Waterloo isn’t a massive step forward from Ring Ring – as with its predecessor, it shows the group casting around for their identity, trying out different styles.
The title track is easily the best song on the album, although side two opener ‘Honey Honey’ is a charming piece of fluff pop that also holds up well. There’s some oddball material like the group tackling reggae on ‘Sitting in the Palmtree,’ or embarrassing attempts at hard rock on ‘King Kong Song’ and ‘Watch Out’. ‘My Mama Said’ is a solid deep cut, a funky pop song with the women singing.
The single ‘Waterloo’ points the way forward for ABBA, but the album as a whole doesn’t.
With their third attempt, ABBA finally delivered a solid album. There are still kitsch songs, but kitsch is part of ABBA’s identity and it’s at an acceptable level here. The men barely sing, and it’s mostly filled with the type of sophisticated pop where the quartet excel. The biggest issue with the record is the bizarre choices of singles – the record’s two most identifiable songs were released well into the promotional cycle. ‘SOS’ was the album’s sixth single, and ‘Mamma Mia’ the seventh. Ulvaeus later said that ABBA found their identity with ‘SOS’.
Most of the other singles sound plausible as radio hits too – ‘I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do’ is catchy, ‘Rock Me’ is one of the stronger ABBA songs with the men on vocals, and the closer ‘So Long’ is fun. But ‘I’ve Been Waiting for You’, the second single taken from the record, sounds like Contemporary Christian Music, especially with lines like “I love you, I adore you/I lay my life before you”. The deep cuts are much better than before – ‘Hey, Hey Helen’ has a hint of glam and ‘Intermezzo No. 1’ is a fun quasi-classical instrumental, a direction that ABBA should have perhaps explored further.
ABBA is the group’s first strong album; finding their identity, they’d continue to deliver impressive records over the remainder of their career.
ABBA’s fourth album transformed the quartet into global superstars. It topped charts around the world, although it only peaked at #20 in the US. ‘Dancing Queen’ was the undeniable piece of pop perfection, gracefully updating ABBA’s sound for disco. But the key development is ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, which adds some adult emotion to their pop smarts.
Arrival is also notable for a number of songs that are better in practice than they sound from their titles. From its name, you’d guess that ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’ is a silly and inconsequential piece but it’s a richly harmonised opener. The lyrics of ‘Dum Dum Diddle’ are clearly slight, but there’s plenty happening with the cool synth in the choruses and the harmonies. Some editions of Arrival also include ABBA’s version of ‘Fernando’, which was initially recorded by Anni-Frid for her solo debut.
ABBA would continue to become more adult and sophisticated, but Arrival deservedly launched them to the stratosphere.
ABBA: The Album
ABBA’s fifth album arguably marked the peak of their popularity – it’s their highest-charting studio album in the US. It was accompanied by ABBA: The Movie, where an Australian journalist attempts to interview the band. It also sold one million copies in Poland, exhausting that country’s supply of foreign currency. The Album boasts excellent, radio-friendly singles, but it also’s more ambitious than before. It opens with a lengthy art-rock piece and closes with a three-song mini-musical, ‘The Girl With the Golden Hair’.
The singles are excellent – ‘Take A Chance on Me’ is a showcase for the band’s vocals, while ‘The Name of the Game’ recalls ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, another nuanced tale of relationships. The deep cuts are strong too – the ballad ‘One Woman, One Man’ opens with Brian May-style guitars, ‘Move On’ dabbles in folk-rock and ‘Hole In Your Soul’ in glam. I’m not as enamoured with the mini-musical – ‘I Wonder’ is pretty, but ‘Thank You For The Music’ and ‘I’m A Marionette’ recall the less dignified moments of ABBA’s early catalogue.
Musical aside, ABBA: The Album is more sophisticated and impressive than ever before, ABBA challenging themselves to continue growing.
Recorded in ABBA’s new recording studio, Polar Studio, in Stockholm, Voulez-Vous was ABBA’s frothiest and most light-hearted record for a while. It’s dominated by disco, unsurprising for a mainstream pop album in 1979. But Voulez-Vous capped off a tough time for ABBA – it took more than a year to complete, while Agnetha and Björn divorced during its creation. The non-album single ‘Summer Night City’ was the first release from the sessions – it was unsuccessful, breaking ABBA’s run of #1 records in the UK.
ABBA were unwilling to release ‘Chiquitita’ as the first single, but it works as an odd but sublime combination of glossy production and a traditional folk melody. It’s buried in the middle of the second side, which is much stronger than the first – ‘Does Your Mother Know’ is easily the best Björn-fronted ABBA song while ‘If It Wasn’t For The Nights’ sounds like a lost hit single. The first side feels a little lightweight but is often enjoyable all the same – the title track, recorded outside Sweden with disco band Foxy blends disco and rock, while ‘Angeleyes’ is enjoyable. The latter was in the UK top twenty at the same time as Roxy Music’s ‘Angel Eyes’.
Voulez-Vous is tuneful and professional but doesn’t have anything with the emotional heft of prime ABBA.
ABBA’s seventh album doesn’t add many new ideas to ABBA’s music, but it’s one of their best nonetheless. The band pull back from disco and deliver a set of slick Europop that plays to their strengths. The presence of the emotional ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is helpful, its sincere gravitas helping to balance ABBA’s enjoyable pop fluff. Seven of these ten tracks were released as singles.
One of the catchiest songs from Super Trouper wasn’t a single. ‘Me and I’ mixes a synth-heavy arrangement with unusually dark lyrics by ABBA’s standards – “With ideas that I got from good old Dr. Freud”. Along with the divorce dissection on ‘The Winner Takes It All’, ‘Our Last Summer’ is a lesser-known gorgeous ballad and the waltz ‘Andante Andante’ is lovely. ‘Happy New Year’ is on the show tune end of ABBA’s oeuvre, while the closer ‘The Way Old Friends Do’ is an unusual closer, a live rendition of a song that sounds like a national anthem, but it works. The dance-oriented single ‘Lay Your Love On Me’ is tucked away near the end of the record, but it’s very good nonetheless. The bonus tracks are also strong – ‘Elaine’ and ‘Put On Your White Sombrero’ are both memorable,
Super Trouper seems less iconic than ABBA’s other prime-era albums, even though it was the UK’s highest-selling album of 1980. But it’s easily one of their best records.
Tensions were high as ABBA made their last album of the 20th century – Andersson and Lyngstad announced their divorce just as sessions were starting. The Visitors doesn’t contain any of ABBA’s signature songs – the lead single ‘One of Us’ is strong, but it’s also subdued compared to the band’s usual standards. But The Visitors is ABBA’s most consistent set of material. CD editions also include the group’s two excellent singles taken from their abandoned 1982 album – ‘The Day Before You Came’ and ‘Under Attack’ are both prime ABBA songs.
The Visitors is also weirder than ABBA’s other albums – it starts with the spooky and slow-building title track. The lyrics are darker than other ABBA records, like cold war themes on ‘Soldiers’ and more relationship dissection on ‘When All Is Said and Done’. There’s gorgeous balladry like ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ and ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’. It’s symptomatic of the quality of The Visitors that ‘Should I Laugh Or Cry’ was relegated to a b-side.
The Visitors was less successful than ABBA’s previous work, without clear hit singles. But it’s their most fascinating and consistent album.
10 Best ABBA Songs
Knowing Me, Knowing You
The Name of the Game
Take A Chance On Me
The Winner Takes It All
Me And I
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